CSULA Department of English | Teaching Writing (A Brief Guide)

At a major university such as Cal State LA, writing is a part of virtually every class. Students are often intimidated by the prospect of writing term papers, conducting research projects, and taking in-class writing exams. Faculty, though, are often just as intimidated by the prospect of designing effective assignments, responding to student writing, dealing with grammar and style problems, and assigning a grade to student work.

These pages provide some guidance to faculty on these issues and serve as brief introductions to some of the issues involved in teaching writing at the university level. The organization of these pages mirrors the writing process (without the recursion of course!), beginning with an overview of rhetoric and concluding with grading practices. Each section stands on its own, though, so feel free to jump around from topic to topic.

Some Basic Assumptions



Focusing on Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing Low Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing Effective Assignments

Responding to Student Writing

Dealing with Grammar

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading Rubrics

Writing instruction at the college- and university-level has been around since the beginning of the twentieth-century. Responding to complaints from faculty about the quality of student writing, Harvard University began testing incoming first-year students to determine whether they required additional coursework before beginning "real" college work. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Up until the early 1970's the emphasis of writing instruction was on the final product--teachers lectured on grammar, punctuation, and usage, gave out essay assignments, and corrected and graded final drafts with liberal use of the dreaded red pen. Known as the "current-traditional" model of composition instruction, this approach emphasized perfecting the final product through a focus on formal features of the writing: correctness, usage, explicit structure, and so on. The thinking behind this model was student writing would improve when students successfully acquired and mastered the necessary forms.

The Paradigm Shift

Since the early 1970's writing instruction has undergone what has been called a "paradigm shift" away from the current-traditional emphasis on final product towards the "process" of writing itself. In general, researchers have found it helpful to think of the writing process as divided into four stages:

  • pre-writing (or invention)
  • composing (or drafting)
  • revising
  • editing/proofreading

While novice writers usually think of these stages as discrete and sequential, experienced writers know that they overlap, that pre-writing activities can occur during the composing stage and the revising stage. Composition theorists refer to this potential "re-running" of the writing process sequence as "recursion." If a writer during revision discovers some new idea that requires development, then the writer will need to re-engage in pre-writing (figuring out what to say), composing (developing the idea), and revision. 

It is important to remember, however, that the writing process for each writer can be different. There is no one "correct" writing process for all; rather, individual writers are using either more or less effective writing processes. The role of the instructor then is to help each writer discover his or her most effective writing process. Generally, student writers do not pay enough attention to one or more of the stages. They might begin drafting immediately without any planning. They might not know how to plan and so struggle to get started. They might focus on editing and proofreading so early in the process that they struggle to produce content. They might never revise, or edit, or proofread. 

The Rhetorical Turn

An equally important shift that has occurred in the teaching of writing is the rediscovery of rhetoric. Specifically, writing instruction has increasingly emphasized the public nature of writing, how writers must see their work as part of a public discourse community and therefore must become alert to the needs of their readers. In this newer model (which is of course also the oldest model of instruction we have) the teacher is one reader among many, though one who is particularly skilled and experienced. In the old model of instruction, the teacher was of course a reader as well, but not just any reader. The teacher was the arbiter of correctness, standard usage, and proper form, the ultimate and only reader. 

Many writing teachers now focus on helping writers become more "rhetorically-aware." This increased awareness revolves around three key terms: purpose, audience, and genre.

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